Sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean has seen a steady decline since satellite-borne measurements began in the late 1970s. Sea ice supports the growth of ice algae, a fundamental component of the Arctic carbon cycle, providing food to Arctic animals. When sea ice melts every spring, ice algae are released to the water where they are either consumed by pelagic animals, or sink to the seafloor.
Gaining an accurate understanding of these pathways for this important energy rich carbon resource represents a major scientific challenge that holds the key to understanding the future of Arctic ecosystems. However, until recently, this has not been possible because of the challenges associated with distinguishing sea ice carbon from other similar sources of carbon, such as phytoplankton. Having recently overcome these challenges in the last 3 years, it is now possible to unambiguously trace the pathway of sea ice-derived carbon. Recent findings have therefore shown that sea ice-derived carbon can be found in Arctic animals year-round. This is believed to be because excess (not consumed during sinking) sea ice-derived carbon that sinks can also become ‘stored’ within sediments where it can remain available as a food source to animals year-round. Consequently, if this idea is correct, our present assumption of the role sea ice carbon plays in the ecosystem is severely underestimating its importance. This project will bring together the expertise of British, Canadian and American scientists in a new collaborative partnership to assess whether the seafloor (e.g. rock, sand, mud, silt) acts as a ‘store’ of Arctic sea ice-derived primary production that can be considered available for marine animals to consume. Completion of the project aims relies upon collaboration between Brown’s established (Mundy) and new (Iken) links within the assembled team. We will carry out studies on the marine region around Southampton Island, northwest Hudson Bay (Nunavut) which encompasses one of Canada’s largest summer and winter aggregations of Arctic marine mammals. By sharing resources with a funded Canadian research project we will access a unique field site to collect primary preliminary data to improve understanding of ecosystem structure and function. Our findings will be relevant to the whole Arctic region and so will stimulate new research interests on an international scale.